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‘Postvention’ focuses on how we communicate after a suicide

The way a community talks about suicide can make a big difference in reducing the risk of further deaths.

Donna Fox: “We now have 16 suicide postvention trainers in Minnesota as a result of that program. These people can now return to their home communities and begin training other professionals in postvention best practices.”
Photo courtesy of NAMI-Minnesota

Last month, a group of first responders from around Minnesota met for a three-day training program to learn about suicide postvention, or special protocols that can be introduced in a community after a suicide to reduce the risk of further deaths.

The training, known as the NAMI-New Hampshire Connect Suicide Postvention Program, was conducted March 25-27 in St. Paul. Specially trained NAMI-Minnesota staff members led the program, which was the first of its kind to be conducted in the state.

The group of 16 participants was selected with special attention paid to geographic representation, said Donna Fox, NAMI-Minnesota program director. Fox also oversees NAMI-Minnesota’s suicide prevention efforts.

“We now have 16 suicide postvention trainers in Minnesota as a result of that program,” Fox said. “These people can now return to their home communities and begin training other professionals in postvention best practices. We chose participants by region so that one day we could blanket the state with trainers. We want this kind of information to spread across Minnesota.”

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The information that Fox hopes will spread across the state is a carefully crafted way of communicating with others about suicide and its aftereffects. Because suicide can be contagious in a community rocked by a sudden self-inflicted death, Fox and others in her field advocate that healthcare providers, educators, religious leaders, funeral directors and members of the local media take great care in the way they talk about suicide and those who end their own lives.

In postvention workshops, trainees are taught safe ways to talk about suicide. Talking about suicide in a reckless manner, Fox said, can fan the flames of grief in a community, and lead to contagion, especially in youth. No one wants that to happen.

“When a community member dies as a result of suicide, an example of safe communication about the event would be making sure that the local newspaper is told about proper messaging so that they don’t run an article that gives too many details about the suicide,” Fox said. “What we want is just a factual report that says, ‘This person died by suicide.’ We don’t want the means of suicide reported. We don’t want details like if there was a note or if that person had just lost their job or broke up with their partner.”

Relaying salacious details, Fox said, “tends to oversimplify the suicide. It’s better just to stick to the most basic facts.” Fox explained that postvention guidelines [PDF] also advise members of the media to include alongside these reports, “hopeful information, like numbers for a suicide prevention hotline, and a list of suicide warning signs.”

“The way we respond to suicide is very important in the healing process for the people left behind,” Fox said. Suicide postvention, “promotes healing and reduces the risk of contagion. There are a lot of vulnerable people out there.”

Focus on American Indian community

In May, a second postvention-training workshop will be held in Hinckley. This invitation-only training will be focused on members of the state’s American Indian community, Fox said.

“There is a very high rate of suicide in the American Indian population. This will be a slightly different training that will focus on cultural sensitivity and effectiveness.”

The goal, as it was in the March training, will be to build a core group of postvention trainers who can then return to their home communities to train others how best to respond to a suicide.

“After we do the tribal workshop, we’ll have 16 American Indian professionals who can help spread the word in their communities by holding one-day workshops on postvention,” Fox said. “The hope is that this will build community resources and strengthen native communities.”

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Language is key

The way we talk about suicide is vitally important in stopping its spread, Fox said. That’s why the Connect postvention training spends so much time working through those issues.

One key way to improve communication about suicide is to think about the way we describe the act. “I don’t say ‘commit suicide,’ ” Fox said. “I never use that term. Saying a person ‘commits’ something criminalizes people with a mental illness. The language we use and how we talk about suicide can really injure the healing process. Language should be used to educate and raise awareness in a community.”

When members of a community hear about a suicide, it is important that the news be given factually, without overdramatizing or romanticizing details of the death. People at risk of suicide tend to fixate on such information, Fox said. Limiting details about the means of death refocuses readers on the actual loss without obsessing over the way it happened. 

“We want a very honest conversation about suicide,” Fox said. “But we also want it to be factual and brief. The research shows that trying to scare someone into not killing themselves doesn’t work.”

In obituaries, postvention advocates encourage family members to be open about their loved one’s struggles with mental illness, but they also suggest that the text not focus on the way the person died.

“I like it when I read that someone has ‘lost their battle with mental illness or depression,’ ” Fox said. “I think that’s a step in the right direction of talking openly about mental illness. We have to keep details about the suicide itself brief.”

When a young person dies by suicide, postevention advocates like Fox encourage high schools and colleges to avoid holding large memorial services for those who have passed. Instead, they suggest that in the wake of a suicide, schools set aside a room where students can talk to counselors. The room should be kept open for a several days and students should be encouraged to visit to work through their feelings.  

“We would encourage schools to treat all deaths the same,” Fox said. “We encourage them to draw the line in creating memorials for anyone. If you plant a tree for every child that dies, you are going to end up creating a forest.”

Instead of focusing on creating a memorial to honor their lost friend, a healthier approach may be to encourage students to write letters or poems for their grieving families. Those personal reflections carry more weight and offer more solace than any memorial plaque or bench, Fox said.  

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“We’ve had families tell us that getting those letters and poems meant so much more than anything else,” Fox said. “It can be very healing way for kids to channel their grief.”

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) for confidential 24 hour 7 day a week crisis counseling, information, and local resources.

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